Sin Maíz No Hay País: Mexican law seeks to protect native corn

By Niamh Michail contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/Campwillowlake
GettyImages/Campwillowlake

Related tags: Native ingredients, Sustainability, Biodiversity

Mexican lawmakers want to legally protect native corn varieties they say are a fundamental part of the country’s biodiversity and national heritage.

Corn comes from Mexico and forms the basis of around 700 dishes in the country. According to the federal agency for biodiversity, Conabio, the country has 59 native varieties.

Despite the cultural importance of the crop, Mexican farmers growing native or landrace varieties receive low prices. The country is also dependent on maize imports, shipping in around one-third of corn consumed, much of which is GMO.

Sin Maíz No Hay País (Without Corn, There Is No Country) is a campaign organized by a loose network of organizations that has been working for over 10 years to raise awareness and protect the country’s native corn varieties.

The network is celebrating a proposed law that would legally recognize native corn cultivation in Mexico as part of the country’s food heritage, providing protection and support to smallholder farmers.

The Federal Law for the Promotion and Protection of Native Corn ​has already been approved in the Senate and Chamber of Deputies, although the next step - its approval by the Commission of Agriculture - is currently stalled. 

Penned by senators Ana Lilia Rivera Rivera and Jesusa Rodríguez Ramírez, members of the Morena political party, the draft law proposes to promote the sustainable development of native corn; increase its productivity, competitiveness and biodiversity; support native corn producers; and establish the protection mechanisms for its production, commercialization and consumption.

The bill proposes establishing a National Corn Council that would coordinate, execute and evaluate programs that protect native corn. A National Seed Program would also create seed banks for native corn varieties – many of which are an asset against climate change, they note – and ensure they are supplied in fair conditions. The program would also carry out R&D to preserve the characteristics of native corn.

'Recognizing 10,000 years of work'

Malin Jönsson, project coordinator at the non-profit Fundación Semillas de Vida, which is part of the Sin Maíz No Hay País network and campaign, welcomed the bill.

“The law is about recognizing at a legal level the ten thousand years of work that small-scale farmers have done to develop, conserve and improve landrace corn,” ​she told FoodNavigator-LATAM. “It’s a good law because it’s not excluding any corn, it’s including all of them.”

“We need to pay farmers more for the landrace corn because they are doing an environmental service. It’s a huge part of our culture.This law will be very important for small farmers in opening up more support and markets for them.”

Nutritional and environmental benefits

However, the draft bill has met with resistance and been the subject of online rumors that it will raise the price of tortillas, a staple that is eaten with almost every meal in Mexico.

According to Jönsson, the rumor is based on a wrong interpretation of the law and it will not raise the price of tortillas. She added she hoped food manufacturers embrace native corn.

“I would hope the food industry understands the importance of landrace corn and uses it in its products, not only for its cultural value but also for the nutritional and environmental benefits​.

“It would be sad if we continued to have a system that only supports varieties that bring the most profit or work best with fertilizers and machines. We have to see the other value of these crops," ​she added.

FAO on biodiversity: 'The less we use, the more we lose'

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) also calls for greater protection of plant biodiversity.

Earlier this month, Maria Helena Semedo, the deputy director-general for climate and natural resources at FAO, said a wide range of plants was necessary for nutrition, adapting to climate change and achieving the global sustainable development goals. 

“Over the course of history, humans utilized over 3,000 plant species. Today, we mostly depend on only 150 types, with just three crops - rice, wheat and maize - providing over half our calories​. The less we use, the more we lose. To address the world's complex challenges, we must change this situation,” ​she said.

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